We’re all looking for the next great destination. My vote goes to Estonia, for historic architecture, the cobblestone streets, culture, fine dining and park land you expect to find in Europe, and for a lot less money than in what I call “the usual suspects”.
Estonia is one of the three Baltic nations – Lithuania and Latvia are the others – and it’s full of happy surprises.
The capital city, Talinn, throbs with a modern cosmopolitan vibe even in its Medieval heart. Buildings dating back to the 11th century have helped earn it UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status.
The Gothic Town Hall dates from 1404, decorated with gargoyles and dragons that were so popular back then. Its tower is topped by a statue of an archer, protecting the town square, where local legend says the world’s first decorated Christmas tree was placed, in the 1500s.
Estonia also claims to have invented marzipan, the sweetened almond paste that’s a filling for chocolate bon bons or molded into fanciful shapes and “painted” with food coloring. My attempt at recreating a Talinn street scene in marzipan, at a workshop at the Kalev Chocolate Shop, was pitiful. But delicious.
I had lunch in Rataskaevu 16, a restaurant in another 1400s building with a glass floor in part of the premises that shows the original foundations, and my cheese-stuffed eggplant was excellent.
Tallinn is at the edge of the Baltic Sea, and has been an important port city throughout its history, which includes being part of the Germanic Hanseatic League. The largest building in town was built in 1916 as a fortress for Russia’s Peter the Great, but never finished because of the 1917 revolution.
It’s distinction, besides being used by the Soviet navy in WWII for seaplane and submarine storage, is that it is one of the world’s first and largest buildings with no support columns. Architects will appreciate that it is a series of structurally-strong vaulted ceilings.
The rest of us will appreciate that it is now one of the most popular museums in Europe. Now called the Estonian Maritime Museum at Seaplane Harbour, it’s a treasure trove of naval history that includes the remains of a 14th century fishing ship, a 1936 Soviet submarine you can walk under and actually go inside, and examples of ice racing boats, which can reach speeds of 100mph.
Estonians head for the beach when the weather permits. Parnu is a classic seaside town, with rides for the kids and elegant spa hotels for the grown-ups. I stayed in the Ammende Villa, a 1905 villa built by a wealthy German businessman as a wedding gift for his daughter. There are family photos and heirloom furniture and an elegant Victorian ambiance.
The Faberge family was from Parnu. They lived here for 300 years before moving to St. Petersburg to create those amazing enemaled tchotkes for the Tsar’s family.
Its strategic location has made Estonia the target of German, Russian, Nazi and Soviet influence, and even outright occupation. It’s been proudly independent since 1991. One spot has avoided all such foreign influence is Kihnu Island, the largest island in the Gulf of Riga.
Several hundred inhabitants retain their ancient traditions, including a matriarchal culture. That makes sense when you realize that Kihnu’s men were often away at sea for months at a time. Men and women dress in colorful traditional hand-woven and knitted clothing, and the family I visited had a sod hut, covered in greenery, for storing potatoes and dried fish and meats. Anybody who thinks that sod-covered roofs are a new eco-friendly green thing should visit Kihnu to see how it’s been done for hundreds of years.
Kihnu is a 30-minute ferry ride from Talinn, but a world away.
You can also escape from the world at Soomaa National Park, a pristine area of bogs and marshes. There are walking paths through the woods, some of them on elevated wooden walkways, and lakes and ponds that invite a quick swim before or after a picnic lunch. Or, at least, dipping your toes in the pond while you take photos, as I did.
I was enchanted by Estonia. You will be, too.